Formative Assessment Matters More Now

Waters (2012) suggested that every minute a teacher spends on formative assessment is a minute lost from instruction (p. 8). But I doubt that formative assessment and instruction are really a zero-sum game. As my master teacher told me over 20 years ago, a good assessment should be a learning experience too. The trick, I think, is for the teacher to break out of the comfortable routine of measuring all learning with quick and easy multiple-choice tests, to be more precise, the sort of test questions that have single, predetermined correct answers. Designing a good formative assessment takes time, to be sure, so why not use that time to students’ advantage by incorporating a thought-provoking article or short video clip into an assessment?

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Image Source: Pixabay

A good formative assessment should require students to formulate ideas that extend beyond the context(s) in which the information was taught. A few years ago, I taught a high-school anatomy course with partner who is a formative assessment guru. She requires her students to write quick paragraph assessments based on one or two brief excerpts from articles. She carefully designs her writing prompts so that students not only summarize the key concepts from the article and their prior learning, but also apply that knowledge to solve a critical-thinking problem that they have not encountered before. Some of the prompts even ask questions that have more than one possible answer, so there is an opportunity for the assessment to provoke further discussion and debate in the classroom. She grades these short-paragraph assessments efficiently and holistically based on rather simple criteria:

  • Did the student demonstrate sufficient mastery of what has been taught recently?
  • Was the student able to make a logical conclusion about the critical-thinking problem that was supported with evidence?

Based on the results of each assessment, she is able to make immediate adjustments to her instruction—and student groupings—the very next day.

As I was completing my own self-assessment for this assignment, I realized that an effective formative assessment should also contain a question or two that asks the student to express his or her own assessment of progress. I don’t think it’s necessary to ask students to complete the exact same questions before and after their learning, as we have been asked to do this week. But I do think that students should be asked to reflect on how their thinking has changed over the course of a unit or an entire course term. Such assessments need not be lengthy; in fact, every lesson can easily be concluded by asking students to rate their own understanding of the lesson on a scale from 1 to 5. Over longer time scales, I think students should be asked to write reflections on learning goals every couple of weeks. Such writing can be a powerful learning experience for both the student and the teacher, who might gain valuable feedback that can be used to adjust upcoming lessons and/or improve the course for the next year.

Strategies such as these can be employed in a traditional classroom; in fact, I doubt any of these ideas is really new. But in an online or blended learning environment, these formative assessment techniques become essential, because teachers and students might not be in the same classroom at the same time, or they might not even be in the same part of the world. Teachers of online courses must take formative assessment very seriously because the students are not physically present, so their body language, attitudes, and emotional states might be complete mysteries.

Technology, of course, opens up whole new categories of possible formative assessment techniques. As Horn and Staker (2012) described, formative assessment can be constantly interwoven throughout learning by using adaptive instruction tools like Lexia (para. 6). In my school district, the printed math textbook has been completely replaced with GoMath and ThinkCentral, both of which are adaptive, interactive learning learning modules published by HMH. Students in such programs are constantly asked to solve problems independently, and the computer software makes instant decisions about the next step, whether a student needs remediation or intervention, or is ready to progress to the next step. These tech tools are sometimes aggravating when they do not work, and I doubt they can replace the intuition and interpersonal relationship of a dedicated teacher. However, even the most skeptical tradition-minded teacher must admit that technology is opening the door to many new assessment methods, and that traditional paper tests with multiple-choice questions are going the way of the dinosaur.

References

Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2012, November 14). Formative assessment is foundational to blended learning. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2012/11/14/formative-assessment-is-foundational-to-blended-learning.aspx

Waters, J. K. (2012). Resolving the formative assessment catch-22. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from http://online.qmags.com/TJL0912?pg=20&mode=1#pg20&mode1

MOOCs for K-12: Maybe Not-So-Massive

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As a former high school science teacher, I can appreciate some of the potential benefits of transplanting massive open online courses (MOOCs) from the University world into the K-12 environment. May (2013) cautioned that MOOCs are still relatively new innovations that need to have many kinks worked out, but the popularity of massive online courses indicates that, in one form or another, they probably are here to stay at the college level.

A common frustration in many traditional public high schools is that some advanced and/or elective courses can attract a passionate following among a frustratingly small number of students. Throughout my career, for example, I have always been ready, willing, and able to teach my terrific AP Chemistry course, which I regularly advertise to anyone who will listen. Despite my best efforts, however, AP Chemistry is really, really hard. In many years, I’ve only managed to recruit five or ten passionate chemistry-loving students to sign up. I know advanced elective teachers in other subject areas who share similar enrollment challenges. I suspect that many, if not most, college-prep juniors and seniors miss out on the opportunity to take at least one AP course each year due to a lack of demand among their peers. A carefully designed system of MOOCs might help alleviate this problem. Given the right resources and enough time, for example, I might move my AP Chemistry curriculum into an MOOC format and teach it simultaneously to a mixture of live students in my classroom and remote students who log on from other places. Just five years ago, such a solution might have proved impractical or impossibly expensive, but now that many schools are implementing 1:1 wireless internet programs, such a system could probably be launched with just a modest investment of time and equipment.

Of course, MOOCs are far from perfect at the University level, so one must wonder whether they would work out in high schools. Locke (2013) wrote, for example, that MOOCs are plagued with both high dropout rates and rampant cheating (para. 4). In case you haven’t noticed, high schools also have significant problems in these areas. Also, as Stark and Lewin (2013) pointed out, MOOCs are typically free and not-for-credit, which I fear contributes to a mentality of high innovation and loosened expectations. Public schools must have the highest curriculum and instruction standards because what we do is so important. Most of all, any online learning program designed for children must demonstrate that it can mitigate the loss of face-to-face social interactions between students and teachers that is essential to learning. So in spite of their potential, I’m afraid MOOCs won’t pass muster for our children unless a laser-sharp focus on learning can be maintained.

One of my biggest concerns with MOOCs is in the area of assessment. I’m not only concerned about student cheating, but also with a concern described by Locke (2013): the difficulty online students have being able to ask their teachers questions. Most importantly, I’m not sure a MOOC teacher would be able to use formative assessment results to modify and improve instruction. Suppose I enrolled a few hundred students in my MOOC-ized AP Chemistry course, for example. Would I be able to meet the goal of employing a quick check for understanding every five minutes or so? Would I be able to adjust my lesson delivery in real-time? Those hundreds of students would most likely be viewing online video recordings of my lessons at different times, so even if I did embed frequent interactive checks for understanding, I would be unlikely to review the results of such checks until days or weeks had passed–if at all.

In spite of the many concerns I have with MOOCs, I don’t think problems like these are insurmountable. Especially as technology and accessibility continue to improve, MOOCs might soon find a niche in K-12 education. I keep thinking about those little groups of five to ten disappointed chemistry students that haven’t been able to take my AP Chemistry class over many of the past 20 years. I’ll bet that thousands of high schools across America have similar small groups of students who might have taken an online advanced elective course. While far from perfect, MOOC versions of these courses would certainly be better than nothing!

References

Locke, M. (2013). MOOC: Will these four letters change K-12? Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3758098

May, G. S. (2013, September 10). The great MOOC experiment. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/09/10/essay-context-behind-mooc-experiments

Stark, S., & Lewin, T. (2013, January 8). Welcome to the brave new world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) [Video file]. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/KqQNvmQH_YM?list=PLzA4KUaZQgse0MKXRlJN1GxpO84KBJa6E

Note: I created the animated GIF on this post using Google Drawing and Screen To Gif for Windows. Original image source: https://pixabay.com/en/teacher-class-classroom-students-44735/

3 Take-aways: Educating the Net Generation

Kvavik (2005) studied undergraduate students’ attitudes and use of technology for learning. For me, the most interesting take-aways from this research were the differences in technology preferences between students from different major subject areas. For example, while 67.8% of engineering students surveyed reported a preference for extensive technology use in their classes, only 39.3% of fine-arts majors did so (Kvavik, 7.10). To me, however, the most fascinating statistic was that only 42.9% of education majors preferred extensive technology use; in fact, just over half of the education majors preferred either limited technology or no technology at all in their college classes. Given the essential role of motivation in learning, I would hope that our next generation of educators would understand the unique advantages of blended and online learning, and embrace technology in their own learning accordingly.

In my experience as an Education Technology Specialist, I work with many new teachers and undergraduate interns, some of whom are young enough to themselves be so-called digital natives. Although most of the new teachers I work with are more accepting of technology use in the classroom, a surprising number of them are hesitant to use more technology in their own lessons. I believe this hesitance can have many causes, including a lack of familiarity with digital learning tools, a tendency to rely on more-experienced (and, often, less-computer-savvy) mentor teachers for lesson ideas, and (in at least a few cases) general anxiety about using computers. Of course, most young teachers I work with are extremely enthusiastic about adopting technology tools in their own classrooms–but I think we shouldn’t assume that, even in the education field, all young people are always ready, willing, or able to use technology, just as we shouldn’t assume that all experienced teachers are slow to adapt to new technology. For these reasons, I think any use of the terms digital-native and digital-immigrant should be taken with significant grains of salt.

Ramaley and Zia (2005) wrote that 21st Century learners have a strong need to feel connected in an immediate sense (p. 8.7). I have sensed this strong desire to be in the know among a lot of teenagers and young adults I work with. Technology now allows people to learn almost as much as they desire about whatever subjects interest them. My youngest son, for example, like many other pre-teens, has recently cultivated an interest in water-bottle flipping. At first I had trouble understanding my son’s motivations for flipping a half-full bottle of water, and I must admit the repetitive sound of the bottle hitting the ground is quite annoying to me personally.

When I dug a little deeper, however, I started to realize that his bottle-flipping is motivated by his interactions with an online community of practice. He and his friends share YouTube videos of unusually difficult or impressive feats of water-bottle flipping. Thankfully, my son’s bottle-flipping is not a clever ploy to annoy me, but rather a challenging kinesthetic puzzle that he self-reinforces by trying to emulate and improve upon the bottle-flipping tricks he has seen online. The savvy teacher understands this generational reality and, rather than fighting it, tries to exploit it. I wonder if the right set of YouTube videos (or other educational media tools) already exist that might ignite the same level of interest and passion for academic learning that my son and his friends have already developed for bottle-flipping!

Of course, finding the right tools and instructional methods to successfully motivate 21st Century learners is easier said than done. Clayton-Pedersen and O’Neill (2005) wrote that many university faculty members, for example, receive very little support with the very difficult task of integrating technology into their instructional practice (p. 9.6). Even now, eleven years later, many of my colleagues who teach at both the K-12 and college levels tell me that they lack the time, training, and/or technology resources to modify their lessons as much as they would like to. As an administrative colleague of mine frequently quips, if curriculum can be likened to the design of an airplane, then the task of education reform is akin to modifying the airplane’s design while it is in the air.

As a trainer of busy teachers, I try to emphasize small, incremental steps that teachers can make. Most teachers do not want to immediately and radically redesign their entire curriculum from the ground up, nor should anyone expect them to do so. But as Clayton-Pedersen and O’Neill suggest, there are small- and medium-scale ways to implement technology into a curriculum, like incorporating multiple media into a project and/or allowing students some flexibility in determining how they can demonstrate their learning (p. 9.9). Last week I observed a middle-school teacher who had assigned her students a small-group Google Slides presentation about a specific topic. Aside from the fact that each student was using a Chromebook to do basic research and collaborate on his or her group’s slide deck, the assignment was virtually identical to a paper poster presentation I might have been assigned when I was in junior-high school 30 years ago. I think it’s important to remind my fellow educators that, while technology does require us to modify our practice to meet our students’ needs, it does not compel us to reinvent the wheel.

References

Clayton-Pedersen, A., & O’Neill, N. (2005). Curricula designed to meet 21st-century expectations. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf 

Kvavik, R. (2005). Convenience, communications, and control: How students use technology. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf 

Ramaley, J., & Zia, L. (2005). The real versus the possible: Closing the gaps in engagement and learning. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf

Check out my Pinterest board: Blended learning resources for K-12 teachers

https://www.pinterest.com/brianleewise/blended-learning-resources-for-k-12-teachers/

My Pinterest name pinterest.com/brianleewise/

Several of my friends and colleagues use Pinterest to curate and share ideas with one another. I must admit that I had never tried Pinterest until I started working on this week’s assignment to create a Pinterest Board about blended learning. Pinterest is an excellent tool that both students and teachers can use to curate many different types of resources. In my case, I decided to make a board that contained links to some of the most common web sites, apps, and extensions that teachers in my district use in their blended 1:1 Chromebook classrooms.

I think curating resources is an excellent example of active learning. A savvy teacher might employ a tool like Pinterest (or, for younger students, perhaps Symbaloo or Thinglink) to give students practical, real-world experience with reviewing, evaluating, and organizing resources on a topic of particular interest to the student. A student would need to employ higher-order thinking skills when designing a Pinterest board, which would enhance both retention and motivation (Northwestern Iowa Community College, 2011).

What’s more, an online curation tool like Pinterest can also help students extend their learning beyond the classroom. A sufficiently motivated student might seek similar Pinterest boards built by others around the world to gather new ideas and/or inspiration. For example, a couple of colleagues in my office use Pinterest to share knitting and crochet patterns. In addition to patterns, they also pin photographs of their knitting projects, YouTube video tutorials about special stitch techniques, favorite yarn brands, and online vendors who sell tools and materials. When people share so many resources with one another, they might create an authentic community of practice, which Padget (2013) defined as a collection of people who share a common passion for excellence. My co-workers are highly motivated to improve their own knitting techniques, while at the same time helping their friends on Pinterest do the same thing. Imagine if a student could, by using Pinterest or a similar online curation tool, find the same connection to peers with shared learning interests and passion for excellence!

References

Northwestern Iowa Community College. (2011, February 8). What is active learning? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/UsDI6hDx5uI

Padget, S. (2013, March 28). Blended learning through communities of practice: Sharon Padget [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/DtM-6isRCtU

Edmodo: A tool to connect 21st Century teachers, students, and parents

Should social media be used in the 21st Century classroom? In case you haven’t noticed, social media aren’t just used for socializing any more. In my town, many (if not most) small businesses, community agencies, sports leagues, and churches maintain a presence on Facebook. Twitter is another option for agencies interested in rapid dissemination of small pieces of information, like utility companies and emergency responders. Students and their parents seem comfortable using social media apps for the sorts of everyday interactions that might have been handled via email 10 years ago (or, before that, by telephone). Since 2008, Edmodo has offered 21st Century teachers a way to bring social media-like functions into the classroom; in just a few years, Edmodo has grown to over 20 million registered users (EdSurge, 2013, para. 1).

Teachers can use Edmodo to facilitate communication with parents and students via an interface that looks and works like a Facebook News Feed. Teachers can post text, links, snapshots, polls, and assignments, which can serve as springboards for discussions via the commenting functions (and, of course, the ubiquitous “Like” button). An impressive menu of plugin apps is also available, so teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel when incorporating standards-based curriculum tools into their Edmodo classes. These tools offer great opportunities for authentic learning to occur, like structuring online academic discussions and publishing student work to wider online audiences. Many of these functions are available via other platforms like Google Classroom–however, unlike Google, teachers can also use Edmodo to network and share resources with each other, via user groups organized by geographic area, subject area, or grade level. Also, since Edmodo is so similar to Facebook, its functionality is more intuitive to digital-immigrant parents than most education-specific apps.

Many teachers might hesitate to integrate social media tools into their classrooms, and for good reasons. Especially for the under-18 crowd, the information superhighway can be hotbed for propagandists, cyberbullies, scam artists, and other baddies who might harm students and their families. Thankfully, Edmodo’s terms of service and privacy policy help protect students from many of the pitfalls that riddle other social media platforms. Students, for example, don’t have to provide personal information like email addresses; rather, teachers can create an anonymous class code, which is then shared with students. Further, when users post information to Edmodo, they can select which audience(s) have access to the information.

I would resist the temptation to use grown-up social media tools like Twitter and Facebook in my classroom. After all, Edmodo is far safer, and it is specifically designed for students. I would start at the back-end by creating a teacher account and joining a few groups of teachers who work in my local district or subject area. Prior to building a group for my students, I would communicate with parents, both to introduce them to the ways they can use Edmodo to access their own child’s information, and also to reassure them that each child’s privacy will be protected. In addition to providing authentic learning experiences, I would also use Edmodo to launch important discussions about online safety and digital citizenship. After all, cyberspace can be a frightening, even dangerous place for students. Edmodo is like that quiet parking lot where novice drivers first sit behind the steering wheel–a place where, rather than simply reading about the abstractions of driving, authentic learning experiences can take place in a (relatively) safe environment.

Reference

EdSurge. (2013). Product reviews: Edmodo [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/product-reviews/edmodo

Keeping Our Online Students Safe…and Learning

Prompt: What are the cues and clues we as blended & online instructors need to be aware of to ensure we are indeed teaching/reaching each one of our students?

The advent of blended and online learning is easily the most significant change in public education since my career began two decades ago. The fact that so many students are learning online does not, however, change many of the fundamental realities of education. Chief among these realities are time-tested cognitive theories like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As Greene (2013) explained in her video lecture, students must feel safe before learning can occur. The importance of keeping students healthy and safe is news to no one. But are we teachers paying enough attention to the online safety of our students? Every day, our students navigate a murky online world where harassment, bullying, and child predators are constant threats. These threats are often unseen, and there may be other types of threats that are even more difficult to pin down. In our increasingly internet-dependent world, privacy and data security are also primary concerns that affect the safety of our students.

Take the example of a teacher who innocently creates an account for his or her class on an education website or app, for example. Such a teacher may, with just a few mouse clicks, upload students’ names, email addresses, assessment results, and other sensitive information to servers where it will be easily available to a whole cast of shady characters, including data brokers, stalkers, burglars, and identity thieves. We adults are frequently warned that cyber-criminals often employ phishing scams and other clever techniques to attain the last one or two pieces of information that they need to pull off a caper. In such a world, teachers may be exposing students–and their families–to invisible safety risks.

Greene (2013) also described the importance of informal norms in learning. Of course, when considering the role of social learning theory in education, the role of culture cannot be overstated. Even after two centuries of history in this country, brick-and-mortar classrooms have yet resolve the pervasive achievement gaps and cultural divides that serve as roadblocks to so many of our students. The online world, of course, is a far younger environment, where cultural norms are even more fluid.

Consider the internet’s influence on the recent national election, for example. Historians will no doubt be debating the effects of instantaneous news coverage and social media on voters for years to come. Depending on one’s political point of view, and the issue being considered, the internet may facilitate and deepen meaningful discourse between people, or it may actually stifle communication by allowing people with narrow or extreme viewpoints to retreat even further into the media of their subculture, completely ignoring other, potentially moderate, ideas.

Online culture may disrupt the learning environment, for better or worse, just as it has the political environment. We teachers face a tall order in this regard. Even while we send our students off into cyberspace to more freely explore new learning experiences that interest them, we must carefully structure that learning in a way that encourages authentic academic discourse and healthy exposure to new ideas. Otherwise, our students may fall into traps like reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, mistaking creative expression for significant learning, or allowing a useful discussion to descend into what Greene calls a “massive flame war” (2013). Children, and even young adults, need guidance to avoid these traps. 

As with traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, the ultimate success of the online learning environment depends on a skilled teacher’s informed, deliberate, and caring application of cognitive and social learning theories. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Reference

Greene, K. (2013, September 19). Nuts and bolts [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/4hmaRgVWd5s

Constructivism and Blended Learning: A Match Made In Heaven?

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While building an online Prezi project with my class partner earlier this week, I had social learning theories on my mind. This
is no accident, of course, because my professor had asked the students to reflect on this very assignment through the lens of social learning theories! My partner and I were separated by several hundred miles, so it might seem somewhat silly to reflect on our social interactions. After all, my partner and I have never met face-to-face, nor do we have any reasonable expectation that we will ever meet. But of course, technology can bring together people in ways that would have seemed magical 20 or 30 years ago.

 

Constructivism

Constructivist theory, according to Greene (2013), emphasizes that the most significant tool we use when we learn is language. In a traditional classroom, of course, this theory helps us understand why students don’t tend to learn very well when they must sit silently and listen to an hour-long, uninterrupted lecture from a professor. Most people don’t learn very much in such a format, unless they are auditory learners with excellent memorization skills. But most students don’t fit that profile, and even those who do can benefit from opportunities to discuss new ideas with learning partners. The best classroom teachers know how to structure lessons that provide opportunities for partner and small-group discussions, while at the same time un-structuring assignments, so students play a more constructive role in creating their own meanings while they learn. In a blended learning environment, however, this can be a significant challenge. How can I have an enriching conversation with a remote learning partner when I don’t even know what she looks like?

In the specific case of this Prezi assignment, I did have a few clues to work with. At the beginning of the course, each student was required to post a brief introductory essay about their career and personal backgrounds. When I found out who my partner was going to be, I carefully re-read her introductory post, and tried to place an image of her in my mind, similar to the mental picture I would make about a character in a novel. Although the two of us only communicated via emails and comments we typed on a shared Wiki page, I think we were able to share enough ideas and experiences to bring constructivism into the picture, but just barely so.

In order to make this sort of assignment an authentic constructivist learning experience, our interactions should have been face-to-face via Google Hangout or Skype, or at least via synchronous chatting. The potential learning benefits of face-to-face discussion cannot be overemphasized. Sociologists tell us that a majority of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. If my partner and I had been able to view even jittery, pixelated images of one another, we would have seen those all-important facial expressions, eye movements, etc. Even a simple phone call allows two people to hear each other’s voices, including their tone of voice and emotional clues that are absent from written sentences on a page. A pastor recently told me that she observes many adults, especially professionals, trying to have an email conversation that would be better conducted via a telephone call; she encourages people to set aside texting and emails when a true conversation is needed (D. Baxter, personal communication, October 9, 2016).

Constructivism In the K-12 Blended Learning Environment

Several of Vander Ark’s examples have incorporated components of constructivism. The School of One math program in New York, for example, incorporated in-person math tutoring and online video conferencing (Vander Ark, 2012, p. 84). Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan program included personal tutoring and advising for each student, so that students could have regular, rich conversations about their own personal learning goals (Vander Ark, p. 90). The creators of programs like these are tinkering with the traditional classroom structure in ways that maximize the number of rich, face-to-face conversations between teachers and students. Advance Path schools have successfully used such methods to help at-risk students succeed (Vander Ark, p. 92).

I know skeptics worry that students in blended learning programs spend most of their time receiving first-time instruction from online lessons, instead of credentialed teachers. But this criticism is based on a flawed assumption that a teacher can effectively instruct 30 or more individual students in a way that socially engages all of them, and maintains the learning within all of their individual zones of proximal development, simultaneously. Classrooms no longer have to be structured in this way! By thoughtfully implementing constructivist principles via blended learning, teachers may be able to restructure their day so they spend most of their time interacting with individual students and/or small groups. This is an exciting possibility, especially for students who have difficulty succeeding in the traditional, lecture-based classroom. Educators who work in traditional K-12 districts should study blended learning programs that have demonstrated recent success, and implement some of their constructivist techniques in their own classrooms.

References

Greene, K. (2013, September 8). More social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL_3qrSZBJ4&feature=youtu.be

Vander Ark, T. (2012). Getting smart: How digital learning is changing the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The Dance: Navigating the A, B, C’s of Student Motivation With Technology

Several years ago, I was speaking with a colleague while the two of us were chaperoning a dance in the gym at our high school. My friend, like me, was a middle-aged, Generation X teacher with 10-15 years of classroom experience. He shook his head incredulously and remarked that, at any given moment, over half of the students weren’t even dancing, but rather sitting on the bleachers and playing with their cellphones. Even some of the dancers were looking at their phones, which made for some clumsy accidents.

While I try not to join the sort of grumpy teacher conversations in which veterans take turns bemoaning the behaviors of kids nowadays, I think my friend was on to something: Technology has changed the way young people interact socially. What my friend and I observed at that dance has been described by Hartman, Moskal, and Dzuiban (2005) as social swarming or smart mobs (p. 69). This is a phenomenon that all teachers should be aware of. If we choose to ignore it, we do so at our own peril.

The authors went on to describe a research project they conducted at a major university, in which they characterized differences in attitudes about classroom technology between Baby Boomers, Generation X students (which, by the way, would include me), and the Net Generation of students who are currently in school. Although there were predictable differences between each generation’s perceptions about technology, the authors concluded that all three generations agreed on the attributes of a good teacher (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Not surprisingly, several of the most important factors concerned social interaction.

A: The Affective Domain

For example, the authors found that students from all generations believed “…that excellent instructors … [s]how respect and concern for their students” (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Of course, the first of Greene’s A, B, & C’s of student motivation is the affective domain–in other words, a key component of student motivation stems from the emotions elicited by their teacher in the classroom environment (Greene, 2013). It isn’t enough, by the way, for the teacher to respect his or her students; this respect must be demonstrated to the students. They have to be convinced that the teacher cares about their well-being and their learning.

B: The Behavioral Domain

What does genuine respect for students look like in a 21st century classroom? Well, for one thing, teachers should face the reality that students are now attached to their tech tools, including phones and wireless internet devices, almost constantly. A quick Google search, for example, now allows a student to quickly find the right answer to almost every detail- or fact-oriented question a teacher could ever ask. Some teachers might dream of tackling this reality head-on by taking away their students’ internet devices. I have to admit that I had this attitude as recently as five years ago.

However, I started to realize that strict enforcement of student technology use inside my classroom was becoming a behavioral battle that wasn’t worth fighting. The en masse confiscation of student tech devices is now inconsistent with the structure of a modern learning environment. Rather, we teachers should strive to ask our students the sorts of real-world, critical-thinking questions that cannot be answered with a quick Google search. We shouldn’t do this in order to make the learning more difficult. We should do it to make the learning more real.

C: The Cognitive Domain

Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban (2005) also concluded that students appreciate teachers who “facilitate student learning” (p. 76). I hear so many teachers complain that many of their students aren’t performing well on assessments, or that their grades are too low, or that they can’t keep up with the pacing calendar. When problems like this crop up, or when students seem unmotivated or disengaged from their learning, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to modify the curriculum. Think like the deejay at the dance: When the dance floor is empty, change the music.

The trick is that many teachers, particularly novice ones, don’t always feel that they have permission to modify their lessons, assignments, or pacing. I know when I was first starting out in the classroom, I was scared to deviate too much from the curriculum that the veteran teachers in my department had given me. What I failed to consider was that effective teachers don’t access their students’ cognitive domains simply by pulling the next worksheet out of a file cabinet. Rather, we keep our students engaged by crafting learning tasks that lie within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development–that magical place where students stretch their thinking just a little beyond what they are currently capable of accomplishing (Greene, 2013).

Of course, consistently hitting every student’s zone of proximal development during every lesson is practically impossible. Everyone learns at a different pace, and in different ways, so getting all of the students to learn at the same time can be even more challenging than getting them all to dance together! The key is to structure a learning environment in which technology allows students enough choices so that they can find engagement and motivation to tackle learning that is truly challenging to them.

References

Greene, K. (2013, September 9). Overview of social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i28IW_Odp_g&feature=youtu.be

Hartman, J., Moskal, P., & Dzuiban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation (pp. 66-80). Louisville, CO: Educause.

Three ways electronic learning will be important to the classroom of the future

Prompt: Why is electronically mediated teaching/learning important for the desired skills and knowledge of the future?

Based on my 20 years of experience as a tech-savvy teacher, I could probably write an entire book about how I think electronic learning is important for the future. However, I don’t really have enough time to actually write that book, and I doubt very many people would actually want to read it, anyway. So I’ll share just three of my ideas here…

1. Motivation

First, I think it’s essential to recognize that traditional, lecture-based teaching methods have done a pretty lousy job of addressing the diversity of students that exists in most classrooms. As Robinson (2013) stated in his Ted Education Talk, children have very different personalities and learning styles. Standardized tests and assembly-line learning methods aren’t very effective when students in the same classroom have widely disparate interests and ability levels. Robinson further speculated that we over-diagnose such conditions as ADHD because we expect students to sit quietly in school for prolonged periods of time. When properly implemented, I think computer technology gives each student a unique opportunity to find his or her own relevance in each lesson. This helps make the formal learning process less boring for students.

For example, I recently met a high-school English teacher who developed an electronic storyboarding assignment for her students when they read Romeo and Juliet (M. Guerini, personal communication, October 14, 2016). She asked each student to prepare a comic-strip style storyboard for each act of the play by using the StoryboardThat webtool. As an added twist, she asked her students to use Twitter-style dialogue, including witty handles, 140-character limits, and the liberal use of hashtags. Students were free to choose which scenes and characters to portray, as well as which graphical elements to incorporate into their comic strips. I know some teachers think we shouldn’t worry so much about making learning interesting or entertaining. Teachers are sometimes scared that creative projects may take too much time from the curriculum. In spite of these concerns, motivation is a very potent factor in student achievement, and we should embrace any tech tool that helps motivate our students, as long as it motivates them to learn.

2. Assessment

Second, I think technology offers teachers a greatly improved way of assessing student learning. Traditional paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice tests created a situation in which low-level knowledge and factual recall were assigned top priority by both teachers and students. New educational technologies, on the other hand, allow students to be assessed with more high-order critical thinking tasks like placing items in a sequence, drawing graphs, and even typing sentence answers that can be quickly and automatically graded. Instead of spending several hours each evening grading stacks of papers, teachers now have access to technologies that automate much of the grading process. I already wrote about student motivation, but imagine how much more teachers might be motivated if the time-consuming task of correcting papers could be more automated. Finally, teachers might have time for more valuable work, like crafting extra remediation and enrichment lessons for their students, or possibly for catching up on some long-neglected sleep!

3. Student Learning

Finally, I think technology has the exciting possibility of leveling the playing field for students who come from socioeconomic disadvantage and/or English-language learners. These populations of students in particular have always struggled to overcome achievement gaps for a wealth of reasons, including the fact that teachers never had enough time to adequately assess the individual progress of each student. Technology may help close this gap, in part, by allowing teachers to quickly pinpoint which students need extra help.

President Obama recently visited Mooresville, North Carolina, a community which, according to him, had used blended learning to foster one of the highest records of student achievement in that state, even though the district received below-average funding (Mackey, 2013). I think the success of blended learning depends on something more important than money. I don’t think Cadillac tech plans are necessarily more effective than those done on a shoestring. The most important factor, I think, is whether teachers already have a focus on student learning.

Traditional American education, of course, was focused too much on teaching and not as much on learning. Lecture-based and rote learning models encouraged teachers merely to cover a concept or curriculum unit, and then throw up their hands and shrug if they later discovered that half or more of their students failed to demonstrate understanding. A focus on student learning, of course, was more challenging and time-consuming, because it required teachers to design different learning activities for students with different learning needs. By allowing students to work at their own pace, on their own time schedule, and along their own path, blended learning offers a great opportunity to make the learning experience much more individualized for each student. Future teachers won’t be content to design a one-size-fits-all approach for all students, and then hope for the best. We are moving into a future in which students will increasingly take learning into their own hands, whether we want them to or not.

References

Mackey, K. (2013, June 14). The disruption of blended learning. American RadioWorks. Podcast retrieved from http://www.christenseninstitute.org/?multimedia=how-online-tools-may-change-classrooms-today-and-forever

Robinson, K. (2013, May 10). How to escape education’s death valley [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX78iKhInsc